Grounded in the Beginning: Father Seraphim Rose and the Patristic View of Creation

Recently, I had the blessing to be asked to present informally (and unworthily!) at Fr. Felipe Balingit’s online Saturday morning Catechism class, on Blessed Seraphim Rose’s writings about the Creation in Genesis, based in the Church Fathers.  Fr. Felipe’s mission work in the Philippines includes this class, which he conducts usually from Holy Trinity Seminary and Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he is currently studying and helping to conduct worship services. The class mainly consists of dedicated Filipino Orthodox Christians and catechumens, along with others, in various time zones around the world, and usually lasts for several hours with Fr. Felipe’s teaching and answering of questions. His insights, dedication, and theirs are a great blessing to experience, glory to God!

In our discussion of the approach of the Church Fathers to Genesis, as summarized in Fr. Seraphim’s work, two participants asked the questions: “What about the dinosaurs?” and “Doesn’t the Catholic Pope now accept evolution?” These questions involved the relation of the Orthodox Church’s traditional teachings on Creation to current secular-scientific views in popular culture, which influence many in Catholic and Protestant circles, but also some Orthodox Christians. The questions also implicitly raise the issue of how Orthodox teachings, based in the Church Fathers, may differ from conservative Protestant Christian approaches to Creation as well. The whole discussion raised the issue of the importance of a patristic understanding of Creation to our faith today, and the unworthy reflection below is based on the conversation.

The cover of the second edition (2011) of the compilation of Blessed Seraphim’s work on Creation, based in the Church Fathers
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Fr. Seraphim (+1982), an American convert to Orthodoxy, went from a dissolute life as an intellectual in America’s beatnik culture in San Francisco to being one of the most influential English-language teachers and writers on Orthodox ascetic tradition, through the guidance of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. He is often called “Blessed Seraphim” by many today, in pious belief in his sanctity, although he has not been recognized yet formally as a Saint in the Orthodox Church. A monastic who became a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, he considered the patristic understanding of the account of Creation to be an indispensable foundation of Orthodox Christian faith. He found that secular materialistic interpretations of Creation undergird the current age’s ethos of radical individual autonomy, tending toward nihilism across all political and cultural views in the modern “global West,” as he experienced himself before his conversion. He discerned these attitudes were contributing to an amorphous global “spirituality,” in the spirit of Anti-Christ, denying the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and by extension the historical aspects of the Incarnation and the founding of the Church, with her roots also in the Old Testament. This is why so much of his work in apologetic theology is focused on the issue of Creation, as seen in the long compilation Genesis, Creation, and Early Man by Abbot Damascene Christiansen, who was brought into the Church by Blessed Seraphim and now heads the monastery that his spiritual mentor co-founded, St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, which is now a Serbian Orthodox Christian monastic community. The book, published originally in 2000, and then in its second edition in 2011, is currently out of print, although a new edition reportedly is in the works.

The patristic teaching on Creation does not fit comfortably with today’s efforts in liberal religious circles to synthesize secular accounts of evolution and “non-intelligent design” with “theistic evolution,” let alone a Deistic view. At the same time, Father Seraphim indicated that Protestant-inspired approaches of “creationism” and “intelligent design” sometimes proceed in an overly rationalistic way to try to understand the mechanics of the biblical Six Days of Creation and of human life before the Fall, which the Church Fathers regarded as mysteries from an Orthodox standpoint.

The Current Controversy

Before highlighting a few main points of Fr. Seraphim’s work on Creation in relation to the Church Fathers, with links for further study, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider how these issues of Creation in secular culture became the basis of anti-Christian polemic. Indeed, Charles Darwin’s nineteenth-century Theory of Evolution, together with the work of Karl Marx in economics and of Sigmund Freud in psychology, are often revered as three foundational pillars of modern atheistic materialism by ideologues today.

Interview of atheist evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins by conservative Jewish commentator Ben Stein, in the film Expelled (2008), illustrating modern secular debate on Creation.

Here’s one example I remember vividly. In 2010, the African-American neurosurgeon Ben Carson was announced as Commencement Speaker at my university campus. Dr. Carson (who then was not in politics), in accord with his Seventh-Day Adventist faith, had advocated for “intelligent design” views, which argue that there is scientific evidence for an intelligent pattern to life in the university, as promoted by the Discovery Institute. (Father Seraphim had pointed to some issues raised by the early “intelligent design” movement in his teaching and writing in the 1970s and 1980s, although always basing his views in that of the Church Fathers, as noted in the next section.) Carson’s visit to campus became controversial. Protest erupted even though Dr. Carson’s speech was about lessons from his own life, growing up in a single-parent home in public housing, and rising to the top of the medical profession, and not about “intelligent design.” A number of faculty called for cancelling his visit, and then for a boycott of it, by turning their backs on him at Commencement. The irony of mainly white faculty at an upscale university turning their backs on an African-American speaker because of his religious beliefs, all while professing diversity and social justice, was not lost on many.

The controversy also set off a long thread of emails across weeks among faculty, with one Neuroscience Professor opining that “religion is a virus that should be exterminated.” The university Communications officer in an effort to tamp down the controversy, concerned partly about a potential negative effect on conservative alumni and area residents, organized a forum on “faith and reason/reason and faith,” at which some faculty members noticeably laughed when I mentioned that Orthodox Christians regard Moses’ account of Creation as a divine prophecy of the past. So much, again, for diversity and inclusion in much of American higher education, when it involves views different from dominant secular ideology. (Meanwhile scientists on our campus continued to celebrate “Darwin Day” prominently on his birthday, while references to Christmas generally disappeared across campus in the twenty-first century, with directives to avoid using the term in greetings and putting up Christmas decorations in academic buildings, apart from the Chapel at our originally Baptist university.)

The conservative Jewish writer Ben Stein’s earlier 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (see the video clip above) addressed this secular intolerance, as well, which had been exacerbated by the rise of the circle of “new atheist” intellectual-celebrities led by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Many of the anxieties, and hate, brought out by the visit by Dr. Carson to our campus, centered around current controversy over science curriculum in U.S. public schools. Should or would Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution be presented as one hypothesis to be discussed in relation to “intelligent design” views in science classes in some school districts? Generally “intelligent design” ended up excluded from most if not all American public school curricula.

But issues about the gaps in evidence for Darwin’s theory have continued to percolate in discussion and controversy. Recently, the conservative Jewish scholar David Gelernter, an eminent professor of computer science at Yale, while explicitly not embracing “intelligent design” theory, summarized the criticisms of Darwin’s theory to indicate why he no longer accepted it. In an article in the Spring 2019 issue of The Claremont Review of Books, which caused a stir in secularized conservative circles in America, Gelernter wrote at length on his reasons for “Giving Up Darwin.” It was subtitled online “A Fond Farewell to a Brilliant and Beautiful Theory.”

The opening paragraph sums up Prof. Gelernter’s concern:

Darwinian evolution is a brilliant and beautiful scientific theory. Once it was a daring guess. Today it is basic to the credo that defines the modern worldview. Accepting the theory as settled truth—no more subject to debate than the earth being round or the sky blue or force being mass times acceleration—certifies that you are devoutly orthodox in your scientific views; which in turn is an essential first step towards being taken seriously in any part of modern intellectual life. But what if Darwin was wrong?

Dr. Stephen Meyer, interviewed recently about his work on “intelligent design,” by Evangelical Protestant media personality Eric Metaxas

Prof. Gelernter in his article goes on to summarize why Darwin’s nineteenth-century theory was wrong from the perspective of twenty-first-century science:

  1. Darwin’s theory can explain small adjustments to local circumstances by an organism, but cannot explain what the early naturalist proclaimed as The Origin of Species.
  2. The great explosion of life seen by scientists today in the geological record of the “Cambrian explosion” does not fit Darwin’s theory of an “upward-branching” structure of gradually unfolding life.
  3. Darwin lacked access to developments in molecular biology since his time. Neo-Darwinism more recently sought to incorporate the latter field into an explanation of Darwin’s theory. However, evidence for generating a new shape of protein to generate new forms of life is lacking. Random mutation plus natural selection seem insufficient to explain any creation of new protein shapes.

Prof. Gelernter noted, under the subheading “A Bad Bet”:

The odds against blind Darwinian chance having turned up even one mutation with the potential to push evolution forward are 10-to-the-fortieth-power times one/tenth- to-the-seventh-seventh power — 10-to-the-fortieth power tries, where your odds of success each time are 1 in 10 to the seventh-seventh power — which equals 1 in 10-to-the-thirty-seventh power. In practical terms, those odds are still zero. Zero odds of producing a single promising mutation in the whole history of life. Darwin loses…. Neo-Darwinianism says that nature simply rolls the dice, and if something useful emerges, great. Otherwise, try again. But useful sequences are so gigantically rare that this answer simply won’t work.

4. For Darwin’s theory to hold true at a mega-level, involving the formation of new species (as opposed to a micro one involving adaptations within a species), would require gene mutations for which evidence, too, is lacking, Prof. Gelernter wrote:

Evidently there are a total of no examples in the literature of mutations that affect early development and the body plan as a whole and are not fatal.

Prof. Gelernter’s essay was in effect a review of what he called three “essential” books on problems with Darwin’s theory, which also discuss the case for “intelligent design” as the authors are all affiliated with the Discovery Institute:

Darwin’s Doubt (2013) by geophysicist and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer;

The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (2009) by philosopher and mathematician David Berlinski;

Debating Darwin’s Doubt (2015) edited by Orthodox Jewish writer David Klinghoffer, an anthology of articles engaging in debate about Meyer’s book.

Several years before Prof. Gelernter’s article, the scholar often regarded as the leading atheist-philosopher in the U.S., Prof. Thomas Nagel, shocked many secular academics with his 2012 book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. Prof. Nagel crowned a career of criticizing reductionist materialistic views of consciousness by conceding that that the “intelligent design” movement effectively showed up flaws in Neo-Darwinism, which could not account for the emergence of consciousness. While not embracing “intelligent design,” he wrote that it differed from “creation science” (a more explicitly religious conservative Protestant effort to “prove” biblical accounts scientifically true), by contributing valid scientific critiques of Neo-Darwinism. For this, Nagel became something of an intellectual pariah to many in secular academia.

The Church Fathers, Scripture, and the Revelation to Moses

While the main 1,144-page book of Fr. Seraphim’s writings and compilation of patristic quotes on Creation is currently out of print as noted above, there is an article summarizing its points by Abbot Damascene that is available online, and also a short book of St. Symeon the New Theologian’s writings on the biblical Creation account, translated by Father Seraphim, which is still in print and which he considered to be essential patristic reading on the topic.

Icon of Christ Creating the Plants, 15th century, from a fresco in the Sucevita Monastery in Romania.
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The article by Abbot Damascene is based on a talk that he gave in 2008 at the International Nativity Educational Readings of the Moscow Patriarchate, in the section “The Orthodox Interpretation of the Creation of the World,” at the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering. Support for that session came from a project in Russia aimed at encouraging a traditional Orthodox version of Creation, which is referenced in the issue of the Orthodox Word that published the article. His presentation in Moscow in turn was based on a paper that he gave in 2007 at the “Conference on Orthodoxy and the Natural Environment” at St. Nicholas Ranch in California. Some papers from the latter conference, together with additional contributions (including one on literature and the environment by your unworthy blogger) were included in the edited collection Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (2013), which was endorsed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. But as I found out later, Abbot Damascene’s paper had been left out of the collection. Perhaps this was because it was not in accord with another paper in the collection favorable towards adaptations of Darwin’s theory, or with likely perspectives of reviewers through the academic publisher, a liberal Catholic university press. At any rate, Abbot Damascene’s article is included as an appendix to the second edition of his collection of Fr. Seraphim’s writings on Creation.

Offering a patristic vision, Abbot Damascene summarizes Blessed Seraphim’s commentary on Genesis from the Church Fathers in several main points:

  1. Man’s condition before the Fall involved creation in grace, participating in the Divine Energies but not Essence, with the potential for deification. Adam and Eve were “conditionally immortal.” Their bodily existence did not have according to the Fathers the fallen coarser aspects of physical corporeality today. Human beings before the Fall did not experience “irrational desire” for pleasures, finding their pleasure in God. Direct relation with “the most simple and imageless essences of created beings” was possible, without the mediation of imagination, according to St. Maximus the Confessor.
  2. Originally the Cosmos did not involve carnivority, or perishable and obnoxious fruits and plants or creatures. Animals were given plants to eat before the Fall. Decay and death were not present. As Abbot Damascene summarizes from patristic commentaries on Genesis, “the fossil record must be placed, historically, after the fall of man.”
  3. The Fall, as St. Gregory of Nyssa indicated, involved the mind like a mirror receiving the image of formless matter instead of reflecting God as before. In effect, the result was an objectification of self and of the world and others, a “stripping of grace” or spiritual death, an inclination toward sin in fallen human nature. This made man subject to physical death, in the separation of soul from body. Sexual passion and procreation also emerged after the Fall. If Adam and Eve had not fallen, God would have provided other means for procreation, the Fathers wrote.
  4. The Fathers indicate eschatological connections between man’s pre-fallen state, and the state of man and the cosmos to come with Christ’s Second Coming and the general resurrection. There will be both restoration to Paradise and even further fulfillment in deification then, except for those who have cut themselves off from grace because of wicked selfish lives on earth. The latter will experience God’s love then as a burning fire because of not learning to participate in His love during their embodied life in the here-and-now on earth. That involves the mystery of the freedom that God has granted to men. That inextricably relates to the redemption of human beings by Jesus Christ, as seen in the salvation of the Wise Thief on the Cross, and of the rescue of Adam and Eve from Hades on Holy Saturday. It also involves the Church’s sense of theodicy, that suffering and death are not to God’s blame (as some such as Ivan Karamazov blasphemously would aver) but rather are signs of God’s mercy, leading man towards redemption in deification through Jesus Christ, in the divine energies of the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Seraphim Rose translated these seven homilies by St. Symeon the New Theologian, which he considered to be essential for understanding patristic Christian cosmology.
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As Fr. Seraphim noted in his writings on Creation, the mystery of the Six Days and of man’s state before the Fall (together with that of the Cosmos) may be glimpsed through revelation, but can never be plumbed in any full sense by human reason. Indeed, the Fall brought with it changes in dimensions of time and space, which place a veil between us and a full understanding of our origins outside of what is revealed to us through the Church, and what holy saints have been able to experience. That which is natural in Orthodox Christianity is not our biological state, currently in a fallen world, but the pre-fallen state of man and the cosmos, as it is to be fulfilled in the life of the age or world to come. “The resurrection is the restoration of [human] nature,” as Abbot Damascene quotes from St. Nicholas Cabasilas. He also quotes from Vladimir Lossky, a twentieth-century Orthodox writer on theology: “Nature and grace do not exist side by side, rather there is a mutual interpenetration of one another, the one exists for the other.”

Thus, also, both symbolic and literal interpretations of the Genesis account are interwoven in patristic commentaries, much as how iconography can reflect a spiritual presence in a physical reality, in a living embodied symbolism, as is the case even more with the liturgical mysteries of the Church and in the ascetic struggle toward theosis in hesychasm. Thus the Byzantine calendar, in use in Russia until the time of Peter the Great, still referenced on Mount Athos and among traditional Orthodox Christians, dates the year of this reflection as 7528 from the Creation of the world, based on calculations from Scripture in Church Tradition (this parallels the Jewish calendar to this day as well, although with a different calculation). This shapes the sense of sacred time, alongside the chronology linking all the trans-generational genealogies of the Bible, culminating in the Incarnation followed by Pentecost, through which in the Church all men potentially become descendants of the Old Testament Church Prophets fulfilled in the New Testament. All also are seen as descendants of Adam and Eve, and related genealogically to God through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus, Fr. Seraphim’s writings also note the consensus of the Church Fathers that Creation indeed occurred over the sequence of seven days described in Genesis, with an historical basis.

The Church views Genesis as a revelation from God to Moses of the primordial past. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself referenced Adam and Eve, and their son Abel, as actual persons. The teachings of the Church indicate that although the Most Holy Trinity is the Creator God, our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son and the Word had a special role in Creation. Thus Orthodox iconography portrays Him engaged in the work of Creation during the Six Days, and so, too, He is referenced as the Second Adam, even as the Mother of God, His mother the Virgin Mary, is referenced as the Second Eve. The genealogical connections and historical accounts of the Old Testament Church in the formation of the first earthly Israel, fulfilled in the spiritual Israel of the Church in the New Testament, relate also to what the Church teaches were pre-Incarnational theophanies of Jesus Christ — His appearing and visions and words to the Holy Prophets, including Moses as in the revealing of His name “I Am” or “He Who Is,” and of the Ten Commandments and laws of God to the Old Testament Church of Israel, as well as earlier to Abraham with the two angels, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, at the Oak of Mamre. All these historical accounts are inter-related with the basic teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ and the development of His Church throughout Scripture.

Questions from the Catechism Class

Returning at the end to the Catechism class questions, what about the dinosaurs, and what about the apparent embrace of evolution by the Roman Catholic papacy (and others identifying as Christians) today?

Probably Fr. Seraphim’s most popular book, warning of the nihilistic religion of the spirit of Anti-Christ, denying Christian history and the Incarnation
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Fr. Seraphim’s writings collected in the large book edited by Abbot Damascene suggest problems with the current science of dating geological time periods and fossils, problems that Fr. Seraphim suggested will loom larger as future science looks back on the primitiveness of the science of our own times. In the meantime, arguably the development of “new physics” and its questioning of conventional notions of dimensions of time and space, as in “quantum entanglement,” may suggest something to modern people of how a great shift or fold in dimensions of space and time altered the entire sense of reality at the time of the Fall, according to Orthodox Christian belief. This makes it particularly hard to discern in any rational way, from the standpoint of human mortals, the nature of the veil between us and the original Creation, outside the mysteries of the Church. (Some Orthodox Christians with training in science, such as Prof. Alexei Nesteruk, have written recently about overlapping borders they see between our faith and quantum physics; also, the field of ecosemiotics developed in Estonia, from which this unworthy blog takes a name, follows recent scientific developments that suggest an informational rather than atomistic basis for life, of life as meaning-making or communication — relatable to the logoi of the Logos in Orthodox Christian cosmology.)

Regarding questions about the dinosaurs and the fossil record, as Blessed Seraphim noted, the fossil record must follow from after the Fall, with the introduction of suffering and death, after a great change in what we today call the space-time continuum, rendering notions of primordial time uncertain. Orthodox Christians are not anti-science, but live in the faith of the Church and our Fathers. Thus, while accepting efforts by scientists to understand biological life, and ways in which theories like Darwin’s may shed limited light on adaptations by organisms to their environments, we do not begin from the standpoint of materialistic and atheistic scientism and technocracy as foundational to life and faith and God’s Creation. Rather, we reject them as materialistic philosophies leading away from God, and look to the experience of life in the mysteries and empirically demonstrated truth of the Church of our Lord and His Most Holy Mother and the Holy Saints.

Those of Orthodox Christian background who have embraced secular scientistic philosophies foundationally, such as the late evolutionary biologist Prof. Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky, end by accommodating them at the expense of holy Orthodox Tradition. Prof. Dobzhansky, for example, as Fr. Seraphim noted, was known for not attending Church services, for voicing heterodox attitudes of spirituality at odds with Church dogma, and for accepting practices such as cremation contrary to Church teaching. Departing from an understanding of the grounding of our faith in Orthodox cosmology enables or accompanies departures from Holy Tradition in other areas, which undoubtedly can negatively affect younger generations especially as well.

Fr. Seraphim saw such departures as inter-related with acceptance of materialistic philosophies of evolution and cosmology in the modern secular “global West.” In perhaps his most well-known work, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, he advanced the connection between nihilistic cosmological views and the development of global “New Age” spirituality at odds with Orthodox Christianity. Blessed Seraphim saw this trend contributing toward the spirit of Anti-Christ abroad in the world today, a spirit that the Apostle John had defined as the denial of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and thus of the embodied historical experience of salvation history. This involves the full range of heresies, including Arianism (in denying the wholeness of the two natures of Christ in one Person, unconfused and undivided) and Gnosticism (which the political philosopher Eric Voegelin defined as the basis for the modern administrative state and economy, the technocracy of modern life–disembodied and run by elites with supposed access to special expert knowledge).

Russian Orthodox writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He warned the West, here at the Harvard University Commencement in 1978, of the danger of forgetting God and His Creation.

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Today, transgenderism, politics based on nihilistic categories of essentialist identity, a pseudo-religious environmentalism based in “cultural Marxism,” consumerist careerism, and current forms of the so-called “prosperity gospel” and “social gospel” in American religion, all express faith in the materialistic narrative of cosmology as a kind of replacement spirituality for Orthodox Christianity, opposed to living patristic ascetic tradition. Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Book IV of The Gulag Archipelago, “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” detailed the principles behind this atheistic faith, as they contribute to totalitarianism: “Survive at any price,” “only material results matter,” and the “permanent lie” of believing that “perception is reality,” regardless of truth. These principles all express the materialistic view of the origins and underpinnings of the universe prevalent in secular modernity today, which has “forgotten God” (what Solzhenitsyn saw as the ultimate cause of totalitarianism). The Orthodox funeral refrain “Memory eternal,” featured at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, has deep meaning across generations especially today, involving trans-generational Holy Tradition, in which our saints are our truest family members in the Church, to whom we can turn to pray for us, beginning with the highest of saints, the Most Holy Mother of God Herself.

Nevertheless, there still are significant areas of overlap between the scientific understanding of the physical nature of human beings and Orthodox Christian teachings on human life and community, as opposed to false ideology of the “permanent lie” or “perception as reality” views. Transgenderism is not in accord with biological understandings of sex. Identity politics essentialize categories of race and gender not in accord with basic biological science about human beings. But adoption  of atheistic materialism as the false philosophy of secular science (in what the Anglican writer C.S. Lewis critiqued as scientism and technocracy in his books The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength) has sparked current efforts to suppress “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design” as stalking horses or straw men for the traditional Christian understanding of Creation, generally not well understood in the West. Unlike the approaches of some conservative Protestant writers, Orthodox cosmology recognizes the mystery of the Six Days and the unfallen state of man before the Fall, in terms of how neither can be pierced by rational human analysis, but how their mysteries can be engaged by experiencing mysteries of the Church and salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed Seraphim’s work has both advanced that understanding and highlighted the patristic view of Creation for contemporary Orthodox Christians in these latter days.

Grounding ourselves in the Holy Orthodox Tradition of the Church with regard to her teaching on Creation, based in Scripture and the ascetic experience of saints and elders across centuries, rooted also in the Old Testament Church, we stand in Dostoevsky’s sense of pochvennost’, meaning “groundedness.” This for him was a source for the Russian Christian philosophical term sobornost’, foundational to human community, including a right sense of patriotism and country, and exemplified by the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. Sobornost’ in adjectival form was the Slavonic gloss for “catholic” in the Nicene Creed, carrying with it a sense of the intersection of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity as a source of identity in the Church, a deep hidden spiritual unity, beyond the merely spatial sense of “universal” in the West.

Ultimately, that groundedness in the hidden unity of both mystical hierarchy and conciliarity in our Lord Jesus Christ stems from the opening Scriptural texts of both the Old and New Testaments, as fulfilled in His Church:

In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.                                                        –Genesis 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. –John 1:1

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Orthodoxy and Knighthood

Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, has blessed the establishment of the chivalric-philanthropic Holy Order of St. George the Great Martyr, and recently named the Order’s first Grand Knight: Konstantin Pandolfi, a faithful Orthodox Christian in Connecticut, whose family descends from Byzantine aristocracy. Those interested in coming to the aid of Orthodox Christians who are experiencing persecution or who are in need worldwide, please consider joining the Pan-Orthodox order as a Knight or Dame, and feel free to be in touch for information. It is a blessing to be involved as President of the Order’s Communications Council. More information can be found here. Below is a short explanation of knighthood in the Orthodox Christian Tradition, which I wrote for the Order’s new website.

Victor Vasnetsov, Bogatyrs, 1898

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 “Through all the great discord of our days, amidst catastrophe, tragedy and loss, in disputes and temptations, we must remember one thing and live by it: the maintenance and propagation of a spirit of knightly service. First and foremost within ourselves, and then within our children, our friends and the like-minded: We should protect this spirit as something sacred; we must strengthen it in those who trust us, those who confide in us, and those who seek our direction.”

So wrote the Orthodox Christian philosopher Ivan Ilyin from exile a century ago, in the 1920s following the start of the Red Terror in Russia with its persecution of the Church, and the genocidal attacks on many Orthodox Christians in the former Ottoman Empire. The Communist concentration-camp system also became a model for Nazi terror, which in turn viewed predominantly Orthodox Slavic peoples as racial inferiors ultimately to be erased.

“Everywhere that the spirit of chivalry weakens or disappears, disaster awaits us,” Ilyin warned. “So it stands now, and so shall it be henceforth. At whatever post [of duty] a man may stand, this duty (if only the cause is not in itself shameful) has its idea giving meaning to his cause, consecrating it not as an occupation, but as service, service to God’s Unified Cause on earth.”

Ilyin, forced to leave Bolshevik Russia with his family, warned against the “rot” of the “lukewarmedness” of self-interest, careerism, and apostasy. That warning is just as true, if not more so, today, a century later, in the 2020s, for all Orthodox Christians around the world, in increasingly troubled times.

Another Russian Orthodox philosopher in exile, S.L. Frank, wrote of the need for “the spirit of religiously-enlightened activity, the spirit of true knighthood [rytsarstvo].” He associated this idea of Orthodox knighthood with “groundedness” or pochvennost’ articulated by Dostoevsky, in a culture of service, involving “humble service defined by faith,” in “the duty of each to generally guard the legacy of one’s ancestors [spiritual if not familial], to enrich it and then transfer it to those who follow.”

Today, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ face persecutions around the world. Many Orthodox communities are in need. Many regimes, societies, ideologies, and systems attempt to overthrow the traditional Christianity of the Orthodox Church. This is why we invite you to join us in the Orthodox Holy Order of St. George the Great Martyr–to renew the time-honored tradition of Orthodox knightly service in the 21st century.

Stand with us, the unworthy, with our fathers in the Church before us, in a legacy inspired by Saint George the Great Martyr, by countless other Orthodox Christian saints, by Scripture, and by the teachings and examples of the Church fathers engaged in spiritual warfare across centuries.

With those witnesses before us, we remember the Varangian Guard who defended the Christian emperor at Constantinople–a multinational band of brothers in the faith, worshipping at the Orthodox chapel to St. Olaf of Norway in the imperial city of the Byzantine-Roman Empire. We remember the legendary bogatyri or Christian knights of old Kievan Rus’ in the days of St. Vladimir the Great. We remember members of the old Russian imperial military orders of St. George, St. Alexander Nevsky, and St. Vladimir, as defenders of Orthodox faith in the world.

With God’s grace, we need that spirit of Orthodox knighthood today more than ever: Not for physical warfare, but for service in spiritual warfare, and for unity of action in supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ: The Orthodox Christians persecuted throughout the world violently for their faith; those brethren in the faith in need of material help and sustenance; the vulnerable and children; the Orthodox Churches and communities in need of material help–so that they all may have the opportunity on earth with us to enter the faith fully, to help spread the Gospel, and to repent in preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven.

As Ilyin concluded, the spirit of Orthodox chivalry goes beyond any self-interest, careerism, and political partisanship, to “first and foremost the voluntary and willed acceptance of hardship and danger in the name of God’s Cause on earth… a cadre of men firm in such spirit and capable of such service.”

He reminds us:

In distinction from the subject himself, having his own personal interests, sympathies and desires, God’s cause has its Transcendent paths of necessity and exaction. And so man’s personal interests and the Transcendent interest of his Cause at any moment can part and place him before the temptation of self-interest. At any moment, a man can find himself in the position of a mercenary, not knowing upon what course to decide, or the position of a traitor who prefers his interest to the Transcendent. The spirit of chivalry is comprised of steadfast loyalty to the Transcendent path.

Today, the Holy Order of St. George the Great Martyr is dedicated to such service on behalf of Orthodox Christians in need. The Order welcomes men and women as members who are Orthodox Christians willing to take up that knightly spirit. We have no affiliation of any kind with Masonic or other heterodox or occult or conspiratorial orders, nor are we a Roman Catholic chivalric group. We are an Orthodox Christian order of knighthood standing for our Orthodox tradition and heritage across the globe.  Under the spiritual blessing and direction of Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, we are open to those joining us in that spirit from all Orthodox jurisdictions, regardless of background.

Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters: Rally with us to the standard of St. George, in service to our Emperor of Emperors, our Lord Jesus Christ, and His Church!

 

 

 

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Two Americas on Screen: Homeland and the Cavalry Trilogy

The Covid-19 collapse, civil unrest bordering on revolution, and now the Bostock decision by the Supreme Court re-defining sex, all seem like the old American republic’s version of the “three horsemen of the Apocalypse” in 2020, from the standpoint of traditional American culture.

But this year also marked the finale of the highly rated Homeland TV series, after eight years of addressing issues of American identity and what it means to be a patriot.

In many ways, disastrous events in America since the airing of the finale season, which began in February and continued into the Easter season of shutdown, were foreshadowed by Homeland’s underlying ethos for Generations X, Y, Z. As the musician Gil Scott-Heron’s voice intoned in some of the openings: “The revolution will not be televised.” But it sure can get deep into our heads.

One may have to go back 70 years to find another visual story-telling cycle as emblematic of its time, but by contrast anti-revolutionary in support of our constitutional republic. Notably John Ford’s classic Cavalry Trilogy of Western films, which appeared annually from 1948 to 1950, marked very different views of America for the Greatest and Silent Generations, transitioning from World War II into the Cold War and the start of the Korean conflict.

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Homeland

First, consider the Twenty-first-century American epic.

The heroine, Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Dames), is a CIA agent who is seriously bipolar and “sex positive” with men involved in her work. For example, she sleeps with a young virgin Muslim medical student to recruit him as a CIA asset. A poster-lady for 21st-century American careerism, she is an unmarried single mom who almost drowns her baby on purpose, then gives up the child to pursue her covert spy work without entanglement. The baby’s father, btw, the love of her life, is a US veteran turned double agent for terrorists, who is executed in Iran.

During Mathison’s time in the CIA, one US President is forced from office while another is killed in a helicopter accident, amid a backdrop of palace coups, all related to her projects. In-between, there is much Russophobia, although she ends the series living in Russia with a Russian spy as a double agent, covertly helping the US while having published a book Tyranny of Secrets: Why I Had to Betray My Country.

From revealing sexual escapades to bipolarity and reputation as “the drone queen” for killing Muslims long-distance, to assumption of an anti-American social justice warrior role near the end of the series, Agent Mathison is a model of postmodern deconstruction and irony. There is nothing simple or honest there, even though she can be charming and alluring and sometimes admirable. Everything about this character, like her country, is layered and tangled and contradictory.

That’s the final word on American patriotism in the series: It’s complicated, not really worth it, but something to hold cynically at arms’ length for the sake of career loyalty. In the last scene, she’s lovingly with her Russian spy lover listening to African-American musicians play jazz at a swanky Moscow venue, while pondering how she has just betrayed her lover and new country by sending missile secrets to her old boss and career mentor at the CIA. She seems to define elite privilege in a deep-statish “woke” kind of way, to which many young American professionals now likely aspire.

Mathison is secret agent for today’s global elite class. Not coincidentally, she exemplifies in her career Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s double maxims of the Soviet Gulag system: “Survive at any price” and “only material results matter.” But she practices these principles in an ironic placeless postmodern way, exemplifying Western soft totalitarianism merging the Deep State, cultural Marxism, and “woke capitalism,” as if in one of the jazz riffs she loves. She is a couple generations beyond James Bond in Western cultural decadence–pomo, post-Cold War, post-Christian (despite dabbling in rediscovered Catholicism, a spiritual-but-not-religious none). Her American heroic cycle celebrates the will to power in a nihilistic setting: Prequel to shutdown, New Depression, revolutionary identity politics, and the Bostock decision’s betrayal of social conservatism.

The Cavalry Trilogy

To America’s Greatest” and Quiet generations, Director John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy offered a cycle of three films on American identity and patriotism, featuring a U.S. Cavalry officer variously named (at various ages) Capt. Kirby York, in the first film, set after the Civil War (Fort Apache); the widowed Captain Nathan Brittles on the verge of retirement in 1876 in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; and the estranged-from-his-wife Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (different spelling), in 1879, of Rio Grande. All these figures are essentially the same character, as played by John Wayne, interacting with the ensemble of actors from Ford’s troupe, in harsh but lovingly presented Western landscapes centered on Monument Valley.

In Ford’s Trilogy we see the national seeds of themes in the later American epic Homeland: The hero dedicated to duty to a degree neglectful of family, and the sins of empire. But here the circle is squared by the hero’s reconciliation with his wife and son, his piety as an older widower toward the grave of his dead spouse, the lack of irony, dissipation, and double-mindedness in his love of country, the encouragement of new family life in marriage and children invoking care for generations to come, and faith.

In the background, palpably hovering, lies the Christian civil religion underlying the old American republic, under attempted revival as the Cold War began, morphing into what was called the “Judeo-Christian” values of the Eisenhower era, with its insertion of “In God We Trust” onto coins and “one nation under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, in the fight against atheistic world Communism.

When the son of Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke returns home, the Irish Catholic father is reading a well-used Bible with domestic religious symbolism in the background, instead of attending the fort dance for George Washington’s birthday. Sergeant Major Quincannon and the child Margaret Mary stoop and cross themselves as they run from the ruined church where children had been held hostage by hostile Indians. There are Christian Scripture readings and heartfelt prayer at a battle-side funeral.

Alongside stereotypes amid Indian Wars comes a focus on national reconciliation, in stories that include Indian allies and noble as well as villainous Indian leaders, some of them friends of the hero, and the honoring of the Navajo Scout Son of Many Mules at the Trilogy’s end. There is also reconciliation of veterans and families divided by the preceding Civil War. The hubris of empire is critiqued in the disastrous machinations of the arrogant Colonel Thursday against hostile Indians, with Thursday modeled on George Armstrong Custer, and in the corrupt and capitalistic government agent preying on Indians. Above all, the Cavalry Trilogy offers a view of history as tragic, rather than merely ironic, with care for the common man, transgenerational in the hopes of family and faith. The latter includes both faith in God and faith in the American republic.

Mixing resurrectional comedy with tragedy, and more than a dash of anti-establishment subversive satire, the older cycle doesn’t mistake the seriousness of the project of the republic for the narcissism of nihilistic self-essentialization seen in the later series.

As the narrator intones at the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “So here they are, the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the 50-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of a nation, from Fort Reno to Fort Apache, from Sheridan to Stark, they were all the same, men in dirty shirt blue and only a cold page in the history to mark their passing. But wherever they rode, and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”

The Trilogy’s final image is of the Navajo Scout Son of Many Mules riding off into the American landscape, together with Yankee and former Confederate cavalrymen, to grow a republic.

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From Russian Orthodoxy with love? Christian marriage, after the 5th anniversary of Obergefell and now Bostock, faces cultural totalitarianism

A young convert at our Russian Orthodox Christian Mission in Northern Appalachia told me one day after Church that he found it impossible to have respectful online conversations any more on sexual ethics. His traditional views left him targeted as a “hater” and ostracized in cyberspace. That same week, an Orthodox friend in another state told me that a longtime professional mentor had just ended their friendship. My friend had publicly signed an online document opposing introducing the ordination of women deaconesses in the Orthodox Church. His friend, not a believer, called it hate speech. Simultaneously, our small college town of about 5,000 people was debating on social media and in in-person meetings a proposed “Human Relations Ordinance,” echoing the campaign for a U.S. Equality Act to redefine civil rights to include categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender expression.” Provisions would make it illegal to aid and abet illegal discrimination, raising questions about free expression of traditional Church teachings. Meanwhile, at the university, faculty and students were circulating a “trans-affirming” statement online, referencing violent neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic violence in the U.S., and implying that not signing was a form of hate, too.

Saints Peter and Fevronia, patrons of an honorable and loving marriage

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Such incidents reflect a growing cultural totalitarianism of sex in the global West, present even in conservative central Pennsylvania. This movement emerges from an ethos of individualism with deep historic roots, energized by new technological networks. Today, in the fifth anniversary year of the Obergefell U.S. Supreme Court decision, American culture increasingly has embraced a sexual politics of power. Sexual anarchism has quickly moved from the same-sex marriage of Obergefell to transgenderism, polyamory, and nihilistic queerness, seen most recently in the watershed Bostock Supreme Court decision’s effort to redefine the meaning of the term “sex.”

But on the other side of the world, Russian Orthodox Christianity, in its ascetic patristic roots and historical resistance to Communist persecution, surprisingly has nurtured an experiential “apologetic theology”— based in patristic cosmology more than moralism—that has helped Russian Christian culture resist twenty-first-century sexual anarchism emanating from the “global West.” The different position of Russian culture is seen in the pro-marriage constitutional amendment approved by Russian voters in a referendum late last month, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the judicial granting of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in America.

The Russian exile Prof. I.M. Andreyev in his classic Orthodox Apologetic Theology wrote in the 1950s of how experiential faith helps demonstrate the “complete organic unity” of Christian truths. Andreyev survived the notorious Solovki Communist prison camp in Russia’s far north, to find refuge after World War II at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodoxy Monastery and Seminary in upstate New York dairy country. He drew on ascetic traditions of Orthodoxy with three distinctive emphases: 1. Identification of uncreated grace with natural law. 2. Realizing human being in theosis or oneness with God’s energies. 3. Finding human community in sobornost (“catholicity”), or spiritual unity, in the Church. Such emphases, which may sound strange to Western Christian ears, nonetheless mesh surprisingly well with Christian foundational aspects of the American republic.

First, it’s worth briefly comparing American and Russian public cultures of sex today.

Secular Transhumanism in the Global West

Transhumanism in the “Global West” today seeks to over-ride physical and traditional forms of the human body with technology, to establish a new type of all-encompassing culture of secular identity.  Contraceptive technology and the technologically shaped affluence of postwar American culture nurtured this tendency in the West. Social data frame this change. The U.S. birthrate in 2019 reportedly hit a 32-year low, and the percentage of Americans over 25 who have never married has nearly doubled since 1960. The percentage of adults who have never married in the U.S. (20 percent), percentage of unmarried parents (25 percent), and number of unmarried adults cohabiting (18 million), are at all-time highs in America according to recent studies, with a sharp increase in “involuntarily celibate” young men. Only 65 percent of U.S. children now grow up in homes with a married mother and father, down to 36 percent in African-American households.  Medical developments supporting these trends include refined forms of artificial conception and surrogate mothering, aborting births to increase desired characteristics in children, and techniques for changing male or female body forms from one to another “gender.” Online search engines generate algorithms by which searches for the phrase “men can…” produce hits such as “men can have babies.” Virtual culture meanwhile heavily engages men with cyberporn and its latest innovation, “sexbots.”

The weakening of traditional family structure in the U.S. parallels a decline in the organic non-governmental social networks, including religious communities, that supported non-governmental traditions of sex. A survey in 2019 sowed that “nones,” those Americans who do not belong to any particular religious body, now equal the percentage of the population who identify as either Evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic.

Legally, sexual anarchy pivots on the paradox that each individual’s ability to pursue his or her identity, unencumbered by traditional anthropologies of sex, marriage, and family, should be coercively enforced. It culminates the judicial dismantling since the late 1940s of America’s “soft establishment” of Christian values. Since Obergefell, an establishment of secular transhumanism has emerged. Gay Pride celebrations in some cities now eclipse the Fourth of July. The U.S. government in recent times has exported its sexual politics aggressively to other countries through foreign aid and influence. Decades ago, political scientist Eric Voegelin warned of the emergence of such a technocratic culture in the West, embodied in an administrative state and enforcing a modern “gnosticism”—a culture of disembodied individual will, dominated by elite experts, wielding technological control, in revolt against created reality. Bostock may in the long term well mark a watershed break in the American constitutional fire wall protecting religious expression.

Russia’s Christian Cultural Dissent

By contrast, post-communist Russia, with a renewed Orthodox Christian public culture on issues of sex and family life, is resisting secular transhumanism. The Russian Orthodox Church’s Synod and leaders in the past two decades promulgated crucial documents on The Basis of the Church’s Social Concept or “Jubilee Document” in 2000 and the Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights in 2006, strongly supporting a traditional Christian anthropology of sex and family, reflected in recent state policies. Russia in 2013 passed a law prohibiting promotion of homosexuality to minors, which has resulted in restrictions on media, businesses, and public events. Although often labeled an “anti-gay law” in the West, Russian officials term it an “anti-gay-propaganda law” designed to resist secular Western influence on young people, noting that it reflects social mores that existed in Western countries until recently. Simultaneous with the fifth anniversary of Obergefell on June 26, Russian voters overwhelmingly approved amendments to the Russian Federation’s Constitution to uphold marriage as being between a man and a woman, in a vote across several days that ended July 1. (A similar proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the early 2000s never emerged.)

It is no coincidence that much of the hostility directed by the secular West today against Russia involves its status as the world’s largest traditionally Christian nation, rejecting sexual identity politics. Between the fall of communism in 1991 and 2019, the number of Orthodox churches in Russia has grown from 6,000 to an estimated 36,000. In 2019, an estimated 1,593 candidates for the priesthood were expected to begin training, up 19 percent from the previous year. The civic culture has become majoritarian Orthodox in support of traditional family life and sexual anthropology.

In a controversial 2019 Financial Times interview, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said liberal governments in the formerly Christian West had failed their peoples by pursuing “sexual diversity” in undermining their traditional cultures: “They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles…. Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”

Russian cultural resistance, on the basis of Christian tradition, to codifying LGBTQ+ agendas into law, has encouraged American Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham, son of the leading Protestant preacher Billy Graham, to visit post-Communist Russia, as if on pilgrimage.  Russian leaders also support efforts globally to shore up traditional families, such as the World Congress of Families organization. This has drawn fire from the influential U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center, which has all but labeled the Russian Orthodox Church a hate group, despite SPLC’s own struggles with alleged bias and corruption.

Reflecting decades of history under communism, followed by a disruptive transition to an era of Western-dominated capitalism in the 1990s, abortion and divorce rates continue to be high in Russia. Its population remains in decline, amid an economy hurt by Western sanctions. But longer-term cultural trends are moving in a more traditionally Christian direction, as seen in government promotion of large families and the legislative initiatives mentioned above.

Similar efforts to shore up traditional ideas of sex and family in other non-Western countries cast sexual transhumanism as a type of Western neocolonialism. African and Asian United Methodists in 2019 engineered a surprise rejection of their worldwide but American-based denomination’s expected endorsement of homosexuality and transgenderism. Many Asian and African Christians argue that secular Western sexual mores follow American interests today.

No efforts against secular transhumanism in any way justify, from a Christian standpoint, violence against people in various societies over sexual issues, as seen for example in some traditional Muslim societies. Such acts have been condemned as sinful and beyond the pale of Christian mores in Russian Church statements, however imperfectly Russians like others may practice Christian teachings. Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on why and how Russia is the one major world power today whose public culture evidences a traditional Christian approach to sexual anthropology.

Orthodox Emphases

As mentioned, three distinctive emphases of Russian Orthodox Christianity help account for its staying power in resisting current sexual anarchy. These include:

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  1. An emphasis on identifying natural law with grace, stressing a mystical otherworldly asceticism, in the grace-filled Christian “queerness” of chastity. The late American Orthodox bioethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt in his The Foundations of Christian Bioethics summarized it thus:

Natural law is, after all, the spark of God’s love in our nature, not the biological state of affairs we find in broken nature. Natural law is not an objective external constraint, but the will of the living God experienced in our conscience…. The Christian moral-theological reference point for the appropriateness of sexual behavior is the creation of humans as male and female and the restoration of the union of Adam and Eve in the Mystery of matrimony.

Engelhardt based his description on a statement by St. Basil of Caesarea on how “the spark of divine love latent within you” is enkindled by ascetic effort in synergy with grace, toward theosis. The influential Orthodox Christian theological writer Vladimir Lossky further observed, “The Eastern tradition knows nothing of ‘pure nature’ to which grace is added as a supernatural gift…. grace is implied in the act of creation itself.” Natural law is founded in the Cross, the intersection of grace with ascetic suffering, as the basis of Christian identity.

As St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:

He who apprehends the mystery of the Cross and the burial apprehends the inner essences of created things; while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the Resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything.

In his Ambigua, as translated by Fr. Maximos (Nicholas) Konstas, St. Maximus wrote of how within the logoi or words of God in Creation, the infinite energies of God can be contemplated: “God—Who is truly none of the things that exist, and Who, properly speaking, is all things, and at the same time beyond them,” mystically present in the logos of each thing and all logoi together, manifesting the uncreated energies. In that mystery (beyond understanding), St. Maximus wrote, the Logos and the logoi are one, but in an incarnationally Christian sense, not a pantheistic one.

St John of Damascus noted in the eighth century that “it is of the nature of all things that they may be apprehended through industry and toil, and before all and after all by the grace of God, the Giver of grace.” To “apprehend” with the mind’s eye, St. John argued, one must “knock hard, so that the door of the bridal chamber may be opened to us and we may behold the beauties within.” Marriage thus becomes the master figure for understanding identities as relational in Christ.

The Russian Orthodox philosopher-exile S.L. Frank in his book The Unknowable wrote,

Since all concretely existent things are rooted in the total unity of being and are permeated by the “juices” of the total unity, the element of primordial freedom is present, to varying degrees, in all concretely existent things.

“True freedom,” for Frank, must also involve what he calls unforced service to universal Truth, in the person of Jesus Christ, or active love in Christ. This differs in emphasis, though overlaps in part, with modern Western definitions of freedom as simply individual right and choice. The latter, when emphasizing self-will without God, nurtured secular transhumanism from its secularization of rights.

In Orthodox tradition, law is associated with logos meaning “principle” but also with another meaning of logos, “harmony,” ultimately identified with the dynamic uncreated grace or energies, yet shaping and redeeming embodied Creation. These divine energies transfigure materialistic sexual passions. That is compatible with what the historian Peter Brown notes of how, in first-millennial Christian tradition, sex “was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways…profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body.” Western culture moved, across centuries, to a more individualized sense of both the body and the self, “from seeing the body as microcosm reflecting in itself a cosmic story, to seeing the body as interpreter of human inwardness,” according to the Orthodox patristic scholar Fr. Andrew Louth.

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  1. A teleological emphasis on theosis, which finds inner unity with God in the divine energies, though not in His unknowable Essence. St. Athanasius the Great famously concluded: “God became man so that man could become a god.” Christian anthropology thus, as emphasized in Orthodoxy, defines sex in the context of an otherworldly reality, yet expressed iconographically in the physical bodies of males and females, a type of the embodied union of Christ with His Church. St. Maximus described the “mean” of human nature in Gen. 1:27, in which it was revealed to Moses how man was created male and female, as embedded in the simultaneous “extreme” of God creating man in His image and likeness in Gen. 1:26, in Whom “there is neither male nor female,” as the Apostle Paul put it. Both realities overlap in the asceticism of both marriage and monasticism in Christian history. This is not the fluid consumer-materialism that today emphasizes autoeroticism and sexual activity, divorced from reproduction and face-to-face sexual complementarity. An ascetic Christian view of sex (in Orthodox emphasis) is based at once on the cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, and ascetic-liturgical practice of theosis. Secular transhumanism by contrast essentializes the passions, seeking to form them anarchistically into isolating auto-identities.* * *
  2. The Christian alternative to secular anarchism and totalitarianism: Sobornost, or spiritual unity; conciliarity coupled with mystical hierarchy. Sobornost (by the fourteenth century in adjectival form the Slavonic gloss for “catholic” in the Nicene Creed) “means togetherness, wholeness, communality; it emphasizes a oneness, but without uniformity or loss of individuality,” wrote the Russian émigré scholar Nicolas Zernov. It “means a symphonic Church which forms a harmonious unity out of the diverse gifts of its different members; like a well-conducted orchestra it produces one harmony, although each musician plays his own part on his own particular instrument.”

Marriage is a type of sobornost, as expressed both in the family and in the country, and basic to Christian societies on both physical and spiritual levels. This is why the second President of the United States, John Adams argued, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  According to his son John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States:

[T]he social compact, or body politic, founded upon the laws of Nature and of God, physical, moral, and intellectual, necessarily pre-supposes a permanent family compact formed by the will of the man, and the consent of the woman, and that by the same laws of Nature, and of God, in the formation of the Social Compact, the will or vote of every family must be given by its head, the husband and father.

America had its “soft establishment” of Christianity in what was essentially a Christian republic. Traditional cosmic meanings of marriage were central to the ideal of self-government as a basis for the American republic. They remain so today in aspirational renewal of a Christian Russian culture. In Byzantium, within a Christian meld of Roman republican symbolism and empire, the symphonia of Church and State was the ideal–sobornost symbolized in the double-headed eagle. Russia today in many ways continues that tradition. Meanwhile, the internal contradiction in Western secular sexual ideology, between sex as socially constructed and sexual passion as essential identity, remains largely unexamined. To prevent such self-examination arguably is the goal of today’s sexual totalitarians.

To secular transhuman anthropology, the Orthodox Christian view of the purpose of the human being as theosis stands as not a reproach, but an antidote, in a shared heritage of Eastern and Western Christianity. The propounding of an inner “conciliarity” of man and God in theosis mirrors the outer conciliarity of sobornost in community. This is reflected in the close identification of grace with natural law. The deeply Christian sense of synergy of asceticism and uncreated grace promotes a type of Christian transhumanism, a kind of otherworldly “queerness,” with neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality nor any other sexuality as its final goal, in affirmation of free community with God. Yet the coming together of man and woman in marriage symbolizes in embodied form the mystical union–in anthropological, cosmological, and soteriological terms–between the transcendent God and the nurturing community of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The prayer rope or Lestovka (“ladder”), a rosary of Russian Old Believer Christians used today increasingly by Russian Orthodox Christians as well, symbolizes this spiritual unity. Its “steps” and flaps evoke symbolism of the incarnational history of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Its prayer cycle, punctuated by the “Jesus Prayer” with parallel breathing and prostrations, is embodied and performative, like the iconography and incense and chanting of Orthodox worship spaces. It serves as a reminder of the scriptural teaching revered traditionally by all Christians, that our bodies through His Incarnation are the temple of the Holy Spirit, engaging in the Church the mystery of the intersection of hierarchy and conciliarity, symbolized incarnationally in the Cross.

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This reflection draws on longer scholarly work forthcoming in an article in the journal Christian Bioethics and in a separate essay appearing in the forthcoming book Healing Humanity: Confronting our Moral Crisis (Holy Trinity Publications).

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Royal Martyrs, a barefoot American Saint, and the Fourth of July

This Fourth of July in America 2020 is a time of severe civil division and unrest, economic depression, and epic uncertainty due to global pestilence. Troubles of “biblical proportions” indeed, they seem to call the question of the “latter days,” at least for a nation that until recently boasted of being the last best hope on earth.

Gathered with friends at a small informal Fourth of July Parade in our rural college town, after the official parade had been shut down due to health concerns, I genuinely wondered if that modest replacement effort would be the last such parade in a town where massive annual Fourth parades and fireworks had been a tradition, but which now seems in the grip of the new secular “Great Awokening,” in which patriotism has swerved into being a dissident act.

As our controversial President flew over Mount Rushmore last evening on his way to a rally there, I also wondered if this would be the last presidential visit to Mount Rushmore, the last time Air Force One would fly by those iconic American presidents in stone, and whether indeed the days of that proud monument to the American republic itself now may be numbered, along with that very form of government as it has existed historically.

Video below: Fourth of July fly-by of Air Force One over Mount Rushmore

By meaningful historical coincidence, the Fourth is also the date on the Julian calendar of the martyrdom of the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, led by Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, recognized on our civil Gregorian calendar on July 17. At our small Russian Orthodox mission parish in Union Township, Pennsylvania, this is also the weekend of our feast day, when we commemorate our patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. The coincidence prompts this reflection on the enduring Christian meaning of freedom and unity, and the need for deeper spiritual discernment, amid the angst of commemorating the Fourth of July in a fragmenting America today.

The execution of the Russian royal family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, by order of the totalitarian leader Vladimir Lenin as historians since established, marked the end of the last major Christian empire on earth, cultural heir to the ancient Christian Roman empire of Byzantium, at a time when remaining Protestant and Catholic Christian constitutional monarchies in the West already were slipping into secular irrelevancy.

The Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia

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The rise in Russia of the world’s first full-fledged totalitarian regime involved the start of a state-sponsored death toll subsequently tallied at up to 100 million by the Communist movements that spread from it around the world, most notably to China, where Communist totalitarianism continues to this day in the rising preeminent global superpower, and point of origin of the Covid-19 plague now haunting the world.

The end of the Christian Russian Empire marked the precariousness of traditional Christian culture in the face of ruthless totalitarian secularism in the twentieth century. Its demise also serves as a reminder of how no regime, however old and established, can be assumed to last forever, especially in the fast-changing advance of global technocracy.

Standing beside the Royal Martyrs in the spiritual panoply of Orthodox Christian saints are the many New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, those whose deaths and targeted persecution by atheistic Communism lit the way for the revival of Christianity in Russia, and the coming of Russian Orthodoxy to our small Pennsylvania town five years ago, in a new mission parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). One hundred years ago, ROCOR was founded as its Synod evacuated from Crimea to Constantinople with scores of thousands of refugees in a flotilla including remnants of the White Army, civilian families, and even Russian Boy Scout units.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn would help chronicle the suffering of those faithful left behind in his The Gulag Archipelago, which in its section “The Soul and Barbed Wire” outlines three principles of totalitarianism: “Survive at any price,” “only material results matter,” and professing “the permanent lie” that “perception is reality.” But how many times are we asked to bow to these very same totalitarian principles in America 2020 by our elites from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum?

The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

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America’s founding on July 4, 1776, was completed in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought July 1-3, 1863, in south central Pennsylvania, less than a two-hour drive south of where I write. Gettysburg still nestles in rolling farmland of the watershed of the same Susquehanna River that flows by our home, and whose source, according to hydrologists, bubbles up from marshland on the grounds of Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, a spiritual stronghold of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

Abraham Lincoln’s words at the Gettysburg battlefield completed America’s founding documents, linking the Declaration of Independence’s axiomatic Christian-inspired principle that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator” with rights, to the U.S. Constitution, as a republic “under God.” In doing so, Lincoln drew not only on his developing mystical faith from the trauma of the Civil War, but also on his reliance during the earlier Lincoln-Douglas debates on absolute moral principle rather than variations of decision by mob rule. He echoed George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and others, who underscored the indispensability of faith and morality in preserving the republic. The historian Anthony Kaldellis noted how the Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium was really a republic, its rulers under a higher law. So too was Lincoln’s vision of the Christian-inspired American constitutional republic, which Adams and others saw combining the best elements of Classical types of government, to reflect the higher law of what the Declaration referred to as “nature’s God,” “divine Providence,” “Supreme Judge,” and “Creator.” The Presidency reflected Monarchy, the Senate Aristocracy, the House of Representatives Democracy, all designed to check and balance one another, as was the case with other elements such as the Electoral College, the Bill of Rights (especially the First and Second Amendments), limited government and the federal system (enshrined in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments balanced by the “Civil War Amendments,” the Thirteenth through Fifteenth), and the Supreme Court. But this basic architecture of the Constitution is under open and foundational attack today. The linked documents of the Declaration, the Constitution (signed in “the year of our Lord”), and the Gettysburg Address are the textual version of the king to be executed now by the cultural (not classical) Marxism of our elites, woke nihilists of all political stripes, little more than a century after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

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America helped win the war against Nazism, and the Cold War against Soviet Communism. But her civil religion, originally based in continually fragmenting Protestantism, subsequently weakened. Now “nones”–those associated with no religion–equal either of the two largest religious populations of the country, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, as a segment of the population.

Behind this change lies the “long march” of “cultural Marxism” through the institutions of American culture. Involving intellectuals, the loose-leafed movement leaped over the class struggle ideas of old Marxism to focus on changing culture to enable revolution. In this it was aided by the enervation of American life through the material excess of comfortable and aggressive consumerism and unaddressed sins, which birthed the  “woke capitalism” and “surveillance capitalism” that now oddly ally with totalitarian movements of the Left.

Today’s ultimately anti-Christian efforts to weaponize intellectual nihilism for revolutionary purposes, exploiting real and alleged sins of America, draw on the work of past intellectuals and strategists like Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, the Frankfurt School and spinoffs (Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm), Judith Butler, Audre Lord, Saul Alinsky, Howard Zinn. But such cultural Marxism has run its course from the sexual revolution and radical counter-culture of the 1960s into American corporate board rooms, popular arts, norm-keeping cyberspace mobs, major newsrooms, intellectual communities of dominant religious establishments, elite K-12 schools, and halls of academe. The rituals of its new civil religion, the “secular privilege” and “secular fragility” of its “secularness,” dominate popular culture in current mass ceremonies that seek to exorcise history, confess social sin, and repeat mantra-like slogans and jargon, all without God and with hostility toward traditional Christian faith.

So Antifa today finds increasing elite American “Marxisant” acceptance for the philosophy of “pre-emptive violence” of its anarchist and communist supporters, the Black Lives Matter organization goes establishment with a platform targeting the traditional family for destruction as oppressive, and the Sunrise Movement/Green New Deal mainstreams its own brand of cultural Marxism under cover of caring for the earth.

Dostoevsky’s novel of revolutionary ideas as Demons

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In the half-month before July 4, 2020, conservative appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court helped to re-define sex to include transgenderism, striking a blow against religious freedom and incarnationalist Christian anthropology, by in effect legislating the Equality Act previously deadlocked in Congress. This laid the groundwork for defining traditional faith communities as bigoted outlaws, and came alongside another decision overturning state restrictions on abortion. Neoliberal consumerism and cultural Marxism thus appeared again as two sides of the same coin, championing atheistic and materialistic individual autonomy that engenders nihilism and anarchy. This is the recipe for the social isolation and terror that the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt warned laid the foundation of the two classic forms of 20th-century totalitarianism, Nazism and Communism. All this is reminiscent of the Russian Orthodox novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prophetic fiction in his novel Demons, in which secular liberalism led to anarchism and then to nihilism and terror. As the Russian Christian Elder Ignatius of Harbin, China, prophesied, “What started in Russia will end in America.”

But today in Russia, through the prayers we believe of the many martyrs and new confessors under the Bolshevik yoke, Russian Orthodox Christianity is experiencing a revival. In the week before our Fourth of July this year, Russian voters overwhelmingly adopted constitutional amendments affirming faith in God and also traditional marriage as defined in the Christian Gospel in the Russian Federation’s Constitution. The latter effort, a constitutional amendment upholding traditional marriage, promoted but never pushed for by former U.S. President George W. Bush, failed in an early 2000s America that today seems to have existed in another century.

Rebuilding the destroyed Christ the Savior Cathedral

America, too, has her own saints praying for her. They include St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whose death in Seattle in 1966 is also commemorated this week. St. John, born in Imperial Russia, was marked by devotion to the faith as a young man and known for his caring work as educator, priest, and then bishop. This included his leading a large community of orphans in China to safety from the Communism of Mao, a more brutal mass-murdering totalitarian leader than even Hitler or Stalin, bringing them ultimately to San Francisco. Known for walking barefoot in Paris as a Bishop, as well as in San Francisco, St. John carried the marks of a “fool for Christ,” beloved and miraculous in his prayers before and after his death, named “the wonderworker,” and sometimes infuriating to those mired in a bureaucratic sense of religion. Our mission parish in central Pennsylvania is named for him because of his influence in linking the earlier tradition of Russian monastic spirituality in Alaska to postwar Russian emigres and to the growth of American converts to Orthodoxy in the 1960s and later, as exemplified by his spiritual child the Blessed Father Seraphim Rose, who went from a dissolute life as a nihilistic beatnik in 1950s San Francisco to being one of America’s great spiritual lights.

Thus, as in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the light of spiritual activism, honest repentance, and “active love” shines from one heart to another, more contagious and powerful than even the plague. Elder Zosima caught it from his dying brother, then transmitted it to Alexei Karamazov, and Alexei spread it to the children of his town, as well as to his brother Ivan and others. In this shared experience of the tender heart through faith, in the sobornost of spiritual unity, there is hope for America in her saints now and yet to come. It is why our mission holds a worship service on July Fourth this year in memory of St. John of San Francisco (the closest Saturday to his July 2 feast), including prayer for America, while struggling to keep spiritual watch against the pandemic of atheistic nihilism, which ultimately is a spiritual and not a political plague.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco:

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So we pray in our little Russian Orthodox mission in northern Appalachia, currently in rented space in an historic club on our main street, and sometimes outside on our rural land awaiting a temple, by our cemetery. And our family, considered both a “little church” and a “little kingdom” in our tradition (married couples being crowned in covenant with Christ in Orthodox weddings, rather than linked in any mini-version of a social contract), worships in our home chapel mornings and evenings. Our home chapel is dedicated to the memory of St. Jonah of Hankou, another Russian exile saint. Tortured by the Bolsheviks, rescued by the White Army, he participated in an epic march across the Gobi desert that included climbing cliffs with his bare hands in bitter cold. Then, arriving in China proper, he immediately became renowned for his active charity in tending to the needy and renewing the faith. While caring for a victim of typhoid fever, he contracted the disease, said his final prayers, and died. That same night, a young crippled boy saw a vision of a man coming to him and saying, “here, take my legs, I have no need of them.” The boy arose healed. Later, seeing a picture of St. Jonah, he saw the man from his vision.

St. Jonah in his life and death exemplified what the Russian Orthodox exile S.L. Frank in the 1920s and 1930s wrote of as freedom in the mystical Christian sense: Unforced service to universal truth, in the Person of Jesus Christ, not self-willed assertion of rights. In such freedom, identity is relational, not essentialized or objectified. Justice for Frank lay in working to ensure that every human being has that opportunity for a meaningful life of freedom. Frank was dedicated to this Christian freedom and justice: He and his family had been exiled from Russia on the “philosophers’ ships” by order of Lenin, then because of his Jewish ethnicity fled the Nazis first from Germany then from Paris to southern France, where they hid from the Gestapo until the end of World War II. Labeled by some the greatest Russian philosopher, he labored in near anonymity as an indigent exile without a university home, bearing around his neck a Cross and a pouch with soil from his mother’s grave in a homeland he would never see again, and which no longer existed as he had known it.

As for St. Jonah, he was the bishop of Hankou, modern Wuhan City, today the epicenter of the Covid-19 global pestilence that haunts the world this Fourth of July weekend. His icon in our home chapel bears a saying by him that offers a formula for Christian freedom to remember on this Fourth of July in America:  “Podvig [Russian for ascetic spiritual struggle] is to live for others”

St. Jonah of Hankou

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Into the Woods for Pentecost

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Homily for Pentecost 7528 (civil year 2020), at Reader Service of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission, Union Township/Winfield, PA. Photos from Pentecost services courtesy of Rev. Ricky Phillips, above; and Luke/Austin Soboleski, the three below. Please consider donating to our mission’s building program @ stjohnthewonderworker.com Thank you!
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In Old Holy Rus’, the desert of the Near East was translated into a forest, just as in Ireland the ocean was termed a desertum for monks.

In Penn’s Woods or Pennsylvania, much of the American old-growth forest is now farmland or developments, but our small Russian Orthodox mission, transplanted here with a group of mainly converts from Protestantism, finds its “desert” (пустынь) on a few acres of field, cemetery, and some cool tree cover. Here we pray and work toward, God willing, a temple some day, worshipping outdoors when weather permits, away from our regular rental space downtown in the nearby university town of Lewisburg.

We are here in the great natural riches of the Susquehanna River valley, which enfolds much of the anthracite region where many Slavic immigrants brought their Orthodox Christian heritage with them, and which finds its source as a river according to some hydrologists in marshes on the grounds of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’s Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary, in Jordanville, New York, near Cooperstown.

This day of blooming green, the green of Pentecost, we are here under the trees in rural central Pennsylvania. Traditionally, trees are brought into Church temples on Pentecost in the Russian tradition, and vestments change to green, to remind us of the life engendered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, from Genesis in the Old Testament to the founding of the New Testament Church on Pentecost, to right here in worship.

When the Comforter arrived, the inspired Church suddenly could speak and hear in different tongues understandable to one another. It was the undoing of the Tower of Babel, just as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were the undoing of Adam’s Fall. Pentecost shows us the underlying spiritual unity of life, the sobornost as the Russians call it, or reality of unity that links us in an unseen dimension all around.  Today, for Pentecost, we renew our baptismal ties or move toward the Church, and in any case renew our spiritual lives. We recommit our missionary work, to link ourselves and our neighbors to the invisible dimension of the spiritual universe in Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and ascetic struggle.

It is easy for mortals through the influence of the evil one to downplay the power of this dimension of spiritual inner unity that joins us together through the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel reading for today, the agents of the chief priests and Pharisees greet with scorn the news of the Messiah coming from Galilee. Out of Galilee ariseth no prophet, they say. Well, in a sense they were true, He was no mere prophet, but the Son of God. Today, here, in rural central Pennsylvania, many might say also that no truth can emerge. Our great cities are stricken with pandemic and economic shutdowns, with civil unrest and violence, and no prophet ariseth out of the rural fields of central Pennslvania, seemingly far from that drama of our civilizational centers.

Yet the Holy Spirit calls us, as He does all Christians in the Church, to renew our land from within, and to see His power in the spiritual dimension of connectivity energized by God, in the truth of Jesus Christ. God’s power shapes a space-time warp of faith, so to speak, in which the margins are the center, for He is with us. When Russia was so gravely troubled by Revolution and the sin of regicide, Holy Icons appeared showing the crown given to our Lord’s Mother, the Theotokos, to intercede for us in these Latter Days, as in the Icon of the Triumph of the Theotokos to which we said an Akathist for intercession last evening.

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In His realm, physical distance does not matter, and proximity to material power and riches can even be imprisoning. Galilee was only about 80 miles from Jerusalem. That is less than half the distance from Lewisburg to Washington, DC.

Here on these fields the seed of faith is sheltered, God willing, to come forth like the mustard tree. Through our Lord we are not on the margin but in His Church, His Body, are linked to the center of the spiritual universe, as the grace of the Holy Spirit shows us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those humble and humbled to enter into that dimension of faith, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The Holy Spirit takes us to that kingdom and lets us live and move and have our being in that realm, even to breathe in it, with Christ every day, if we open ourselves to Him in prayer and in our lives.

Jesus Christ said in the Gospel reading,

If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

And we are told that in this He spake of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive, once Jesus was glorified and the Holy Spirit given.

The Holy Spirit moved through the Church as a great gust of wind. In Greek, pneuma carries meanings of spirit, breath, and wind, all together, a reminder through the breath of our prayer of how Scripture tells us that our very bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. We stand out here under the trees, open to the whole of Creation, with the universe indeed all God’s Church, still. Let us remember here how some of the brightest lights of the first millennium of the Church in terms of holy saints and missions came from some of the remotest margins of Europe, including the islands around the Irish Sea.

The Western Roman Empire had collapsed and barbarians advanced, and the great missionary work of the Celtic saints took place, often in worship services outdoors, with standing Crosses like the one near us, the Tree of the Cross as it was called, under the trees. The Tree of Life in Genesis and Revelation, according to St. John of Damascus, is a biblical type of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, through Whom and in Whom we find our identity through the Holy Spirit. The roots and branches of that tree nourish and protect and house all in His spiritual realm, however unseen it may appear to be to only materialistic sight.

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So here, under the sky that He created and sustains, we pray to feel that wind of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost breathe through us and our words of prayer, establishing our place in His Church, His Body, both more deeply rooted and higher than earthly winds can blow. Many worldly winds, some demonic in force, buffet our country and its great material centers today. Archbishop Peter of Chicago of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia wrote this week of these storms:

Since the day of Her foundation, the Holy Church always defended and cared for the oppressed, widows, orphans, and homeless. Besides, all charity was of free will and non-compulsory. And so it was throughout the ages. State social services appeared rather recently.

The Holy Church was always against any kind of revolutions or forceful overturning of power. Instead, She supported civil evolution. For example, being persecuted, She peacefully, without any riots, changed the course of the pagan Roman Empire, having completely regenerated it. The same was done by Orthodox Christian missionaries, who spread the Holy Gospel among different nations.

Look at the history of Holy Russia and compare by what means the Bolsheviks planted ‘equality.’ Now we are experiencing great turmoil in our United States. Attempts are made to destroy all foundations of law and order. In the name of ‘justice’ we see looting, destruction, and mayhem. The Holy Church was always against such actions, and Orthodox Christians cannot participate or support them. The Apostle Paul writes that we should pray for the land we live in and its authorities. If there is peace in the land, so will the Church and Her children live in peace and prosperity. Therefore we should enforce our prayers for our American land and its peace and tranquility.

“O Lord Jesus Christ our God, do Thou calm the agitation and discord in our American land, banish from us slander and conflict, murder and drunkenness, bitter disputes and scandals, and burn out of our hearts every impurity, conflict and evil, that again we may all love one another and abide, as one, in Thee, our God, as Thou has commanded and directed us. Grant peace to Thy Church and to her children, that with one heart and one mouth we may glorify Thee, our Lord and Savior, unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

Returning to our Gospel reading today, we find in it a message worth remembering about true freedom:

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

Pentecost reminds us that true freedom is found in voluntary service to universal truth in the Person of Jesus Christ, not in fighting with each other for survival or advancement or any tribes or markers of identity apart from Him. Jesus Christ is the source of our identity, not our passions, our race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, wealth, job, etc. Through the Holy Spirit, we call Him Lord. The Holy Spirit lifts us in the Church into His arms in that Tree of Life that is both deeper and higher and more safe than any worldly movements, just as we may remember as children climbing a tree both for a higher view and a place of refuge.

The troubled but brilliant Austrian Poet Rainer Rilke developed a great love for the Russian Orthodox Church during his time as a writer in the early 20th century, and wrote verses about the shaded summer cool of the sobor or Russian cathedral, with reference to a tree:

There is little sun in the sobor
Everything is watched with soaring kindness
by a goodness ready to fly–
every stone and flower
and every little child at night.
Only we, in our impatience,
fly in search of freedom
in the emptiness of space
instead of yielding to wise powers
that sweep us up like a tree.

This Pentecost may the Holy Spirit renew our baptisms, and gather us into the Church like birds on the branches of the Tree of Life, which is the Body of Christ, into true freedom.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us, Amen.

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On the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council by Vladyka Philaret, and American Mission Work

 

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This introduces a homily by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s Metropolitan Philaret, of blessed memory, with some thoughts on American mission today, as given at an outdoor Reader Service of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in central Pennsylvania on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council today.

We are in that mystical time between the Ascension and Pentecost, when the Church Calendar seems especially timeless. We say Christ is Ascended to the heavens, or from heaven to earth, and await the descent of the Holy Spirit, founding the Church in tongues of fire, in a spiritual language uniting all brothers and sisters once divided at the Tower of Babel. It is the blossoming of the new life in Christ along with the spring, awaiting the full blooming. And for the moment in this very troubled world all the Orthodox Churches everywhere are still united in the same sacred cycle of sacred days at least on the trajectory from Pascha to Pentecost, though soon some will slip back fully onto the civil calendar. We are all still worshipping together on the Ascension-Pentecost bridge just now.

In the middle is this Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, who gave us the core of what we say every Sunday and often in daily prayers, the Nicaean Creed or Symbol of our Faith. This is a meaningful coincidence, as is our Church calendar generally, because the Ascension reminds us of the Incarnation, upheld by the Ecumenical Council, even as Pentecost established the Church fully as the Body of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Both Christologically and ecclesiologically, the Ascension revealed the mystical hierarchy of our faith, as Christ went bodily into the heavens, bringing with Him our human nature, fully God and fully man. We as part of the Body of Christ, His Church, are under his headship of the Church as part of His Body, in which we participate as emphasized in the Eucharist. Pentecost soon will also remind us of the mystical conciliarity of the Church, how all gathered together and were filled with the Holy Spirit. The combination of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity marks Orthodox ecclesiology with a completeness of which Protestantism and Catholicism have only one piece each.

Orthodoxy shows us how that intersection of hierarchy and conciliarity saves us, makes us complete in Christ. The Cross is a symbol of this, with one beam pointed toward heaven and its cross-beam embracing the oikumene or inhabited world of men. In our Russian Orthodox Cross before us today, an additional cross-beam, at a tilt, reminds us of our own place with the Wise and the Wicked Thieves, the former St. Rakh asking Christ to remember him, and “stealing Paradise,” symbolized by the part of the diagonal beam pointing up to the right from the vantage point of the Cross. The wicked thief, by contrast, continued to revile Christ, and is represented in the part pointing down and to its left. So, this stands as a question to us, too: Which will we follow? Christ upward to the Heavens, in anticipation of His return, or the wicked thief toward Hell? And will we take up our Cross?

This Cross right here on our land, where we hope to build a temple, is from a small old coal-town Church in Sheppton, Pennsylvania, where the Patriarch-Martyr Tikhon served when he was the lead Bishop of American Orthodoxy, before the 1917 Revolution. Back in Russia by the time of the Revolution, he became the first Patriarch of Moscow to hold that title since the 18th century.

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Cruelly, St. Tikhon’s assumption of the title of Patriarch occurred just as the Bolsheviks began their effort to eradicate Orthodox Christianity from Russia, in a great holocaust of suffering. The Patriarch was driven to his death, some say poisoned. However, before that, he gave the blessing that enabled the start of our Church Synod, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, known as ROCOR. Today our ROCOR parishes including our mission still have a distinctive witness, but to the increasingly atheistic and materialistic West, based on that witness to the horrors of nihilistic totalitarianism.

Today, as we worship outdoors in this Reader Service, I would like to read a short homily for this Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, by one of our early ROCOR Metropolitans, Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory. He had endured great suffering, too, at the hands of the Chinese Communists, who at one time even tried to burn him alive in his monastic cell, leaving him badly injured. He was one of the last Orthodox hierarchs to remain in China after it turned Communist in the late 1940s, for a decade afterward caring for the remnant Russian Orthodox exile community there, finally forced into exile in Australia, and then elected First Hierarch of ROCOR. Our mission’s patron Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, then a senior bishop in ROCOR, agreed with other hierarchs to elect Philaret to that leadership role, because he was the youngest bishop, who could preserve that witness of the joyful sorrow of persecution from those times for younger generations of the Church Abroad.

Here is Metropolitan Philaret’s sermon for this day.

“The Orthodox Church today prayerfully remembers the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which once met in the city of Nicaea in order to investigate and judge the heresy of Arius. We know that in the first centuries of Christianity, the Church endured severe persecution, first from the Jews and then from the pagan Roman imperial power. But despite the fact that the persecution was bloody, despite the fact that thousands of “Christians died under torture for their confession of faith, nonetheless, it was not dangerous for the Church.

“The Christian of the first centuries remembered well that the Lord Jesus Christ said: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the sou: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). And in the Apocalypse, He said: “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev 2:10). In these bloody persecutions Christians were faithful to death, went to martyric death, and received from the Lord Savior the crown of eternal life earned by them.

“When the era of persecution ended, another began. This was much more dangerous for the Church. Then inside the Church appeared heresy, delusion, and distortion of the truth. They appeared immediately, but the first were not much noticed, and did not attract many followers. The heresy of Arius, which appeared when the persecution had ended, agitated the entire Church. Arius was a scholar and an eloquent presbyter, that is, a priest – a pastor in the city of Alexandria. The bishop of Alexandria died. At that time the flock choose its own pastors. The eloquent, educated Arius, who held a prominent position, was certain that he would be chosen, and that he would be the bishop. But the majority of the clergy and people chose another bishop, the presbyter Alexander, who was also well read, educated, and knowledgeable. He was not as outstanding and talented as Arius, but he was marked by his piety, and was truly of righteous and holy life. For this reason, the clergy and flock honored him and elected him.

“This piqued Arius’ wounded self-love. Unfortunately, this is always the story in the history of heresies. In the beginning there lies an evil motive, an evil impulse of a personal character, which is wrapped in a robe as a kind of fidelity to truth.

“Thus Arius, in his self-love, decided to speak out against his own bishop – he could not accept the fact that he was not a bishop. Once Bishop Alexander spoke with his clergy about the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, about the equality of its Persons, that the Holy Trinity is a Trinity of Unity, inasmuch as in three Persons there is One Divine Essence, One Divine Nature. Arius boldly stood up and began to contradict him and began to assert that the Son of God is not equal to God the Father, as Bishop Alexander had said, or not born of Him, but created by Him, as a creature, as creation. True, higher, more perfect, but still creation, a creature. Alexander tried to reason with gentle admonitions to reason with Arius, but he persevered. And since he was eloquent, this heresy arose, and because of him it spread and eventually roused the entire Church.

“Alexander, as a bishop, excommunicated him from the Church. He left, but began to spread his doctrine further and further. In the end, the Equal-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine himself commissioned the Elder Hosius of Cordova, well known for his piety and deep wisdom to make out what this was, what this was for a heresy. The elderly Bishop Hosius, pious and wise, arrived in Alexandria. Without any prejudice, absolutely impartial, he investigated this question, and returned and told the Emperor that Arius was preaching a horrible heresy, which subverts all of Christianity. For if the Son of God is not equal to God the Father and is not born of Him, then He is not God, but creation, which means that he was not incarnate as the true God-Man. That means that the deed of our salvation was not accomplished as our Christian faith teaches us.

“In the end, an Ecumenical Council assembled. Arius had only a few bishops on his side. The overwhelming majority of bishops (and more than 300 assembled for the Council) stood firmly for the Orthodox faith, condemned the heresy of Arius, and excommunicated him himself from the Church, as a persistent and uncorrected heretic.

“This heretic died a horrible death, but his heresy agitated the Church for a long time. Only gradually did it begin to subside. It had to be fought by Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, who lived after Arius. But, in the end, truth triumphed, but there was a moment when in the East, of all Orthodox bishops, only St Athanasius the Great remained, and in the West only St Hilary of Poitiers; all the other episcopal cathedras, hundreds of cathedras, were taken by bishops who were themselves Arian heretics.

“The Church, however, was not lost. It was difficult for St Athanasius to fight with the heretics in the East. Many times he was exiled, but he remained unmoved. When he learned in his solitude that at last he had an ally, a successor, in St Basil the Great, did this great defender of Orthodoxy breathed a sigh of relief. Thus did the Church experience this heresy, that is how it was disturbed by it.

“After Arius there were other heretics. They were also condemned by Ecumenical Councils. But today we remember the First Ecumenical Council, which condemned Arius and his heresy. Amen.”

That is the end of the saintly Metropolitan Philaret’s homily. The defeat of the Arian heresy was a defeat of the spirit of the Anti-Christ, which the Apostle and Evangelist John said denies that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh as God become man.

That is our hope of salvation, which the Apostle Paul called our faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Today the spirit of Anti-Christ would, like the atheist Bolsheviks, although often in subtler and more attractive and thus even more deadening ways, deny the Incarnation of Christ. But here between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, we are filled with the joy of the Risen Lord Who is ascended bringing our human nature to heaven.

Our hierarchs, clergy, and faithful, who exactly a hundred years ago fled from the Bolsheviks in a flotilla of scores of ships from Crimea to Constantinople with the remnants of the White Russian Army to start the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, believed they were experiencing a sign of the latter days, in the end of the last major Christian empire and what seemed to be the destruction of Orthodox Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Today in America, we face many other signs that can be interpreted as of the latter days, whether of pandemic or of deep divisions suggesting the possibility of yet another civil war to come in America, and principalities and powers seeking to eradicate traditional Christianity.

Yet we remember that Communism in Russia had its day and passed, and the Church there is going through a renewal, even as America has become a post-Christian nation in many ways. So, our small Russian Ortodox group gathers at this Cross in rural Pennsylvania today, dedicated humbly to spreading the Gospel and reconnecting the people of the West with the one Holy and Apostolic Church of the Creed, both hierarchical and conciliar. Suspended timelessly for a moment between the Ascension and Pentecost, we may like the earlier Apostles be both overjoyed to witness to our Risen Lord and also fearful of what may come. But our Lord will not leave us comfortless. Like the early Russian missionaries to Alaska paddling their kayaks in the Aleutians or the early Celtic saints navigating in their currachs through the Western Isles and setting up their own standing crosses like ours, let us hold fast navigating in the darkness by our Bright and Morning Star, Christ, knowing that as he ascended, so shall he come again.

There is an Appalachian folk rendition of the Pascha troparion that here in Northern Appalachia perhaps we may sing one more time on this last Sunday before Pentecost, in Appalachian style, “Christ is Risen from the Dead…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmJ8PJH2-6U&feature=youtu.be

(Thanks to my godson Luke (Austin) Soboleski for the photo of this talk being delivered before our mission Cross.)

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